Our Deafening Silence on the Coast of Africa: Cote D’Ivoire and our Myth of Continents

by zunguzungu

A deafening silence, while the television world have turned to Japan and Libya.” “The world continues to focus on events in the Maghreb and beyond. The international community’s attention is far from Cote d’Ivoire, which nevertheless continues its downward spiral.” “While the world’s attention is focused on North Africa — Egypt and Libya — the power struggle in Ivory Coast is escalating.” “International media is following protests across the ‘Arab world’ but ignoring those in Africa.“a forgotten disaster in the making.” “Ivory Coast already a disaster and no one cares bc it doesn’t fit prevailing narrative.”All I want is for the international community to take notice of what is happening here. They’re not only killing people in Arab world.“The Story No One is Talking About” ”The US media continues to neglect the country and we are heading towards more violence.“Why are the media ignoring what’s happening in Ivory Coast?”

Those quotes all link to the writers that used them. But I offer this less as an invitation to click through — some of the articles are good, some of them are less so — than as a demonstration of the broad meme that “the world” and “the media” are not paying attention to what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire. This is, of course, more or less true: the international media is not paying much attention to Côte d’Ivoire (with a few exceptions). But why?

This meme got a kick start from an Al Jazeera English article from Feb 21st; Ory Okolloh tweeted a link to it and complained that global media was uninterested in Côte d’Ivoire, which prompted Anna Gueye to start a twitter campaign to get the likes of Nick Kristof and Anderson Cooper to pay attention. Nothing really came of that. Anderson Cooper tweeted on Feb 25th that “I have been following #ivorycoast closely and it deserves far more coverage,” but his promise to do something about it “on Monday” did not materialize. There is too much other shit going on in the world, it seems. But we did get out of it — at least in some circles — an increased awareness that something — vaguely — is happening in Côte d’Ivoire, along with a sort of sense that it should be covered, but isn’t.

(If you follow Cooper’s twitter feed back to that point, by the way, you can see exactly what it was that he covered instead: Libya until March 7th — with a brief stop-over in New Orleans for Mardi Gras — when he switched over to Egypt for a day, then back to Libya until the Japanese earthquake changed his plans (“I had my back packed for #Libya today, but will be going to #Japan instead. We’ll cover both on #ac360 10p”), with a return to Libya, now with Bahrain, about two days ago.)

Anderson Cooper’s barely used twitter feed does not really signify all that much, I’ll grant you, and while the fact that Cooper’s blog features more information on Charlie Sheen than on Côte d’Ivoire is, as Phil notes, a kind of bitter pill, you probably didn’t need Al Jazeera to tell you what you already knew: Africa is not something we need to bother knowing too much about. And there are many other extremely compelling stories: nuclear power is scarier, earthquakes are pathos-ier, Arab revolutions are sexier and oilier (and hit closer to home), while Charlie Sheen is whatever he is. It’s not that anyone denies that crises in Africa are important — it’s telling, after all, that Cooper will acknowledge the inattention as a problem while not redressing it — but no one, somehow, is telling the story in a way that makes it comprehensible.

For what it’s worth, I actually think this is the main problem. Sven Lindqvist’s stirring and horrifying Exterminate All the Brutes makes its moral center this declaration:

“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

It’s always worth thinking hard about the difference between what we could know and what we allow ourselves to know. But in this case, I suspect it’s less that we lack courage than that a contextual framework which would allow us to understand what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire is unavailable to us. We might know that there has been a “disputed” election — to use the parlance of neutral media non-speak — or that some “violence” is happening in some kind of passive-voiced way. We might even know that there is a refugee crisis that threatens to “spill over” into a “regional conflict” or some other stock “describing-turmoil-in-Africa” set of phrases. But the dots will not connect in our minds, nor will they particularly resolve into a reason to read more, learn more, or resolve. It isn’t that “we” don’t want to understand; it’s that we don’t know how to see beyond the initial same-old-story-ness of this story, when we hear it. Which is why, I would suggest, we end up where we started: a sense that, because there is violence, we should pay attention to what is happening, followed by the discovery that there is no news there; just the same “turmoil in Africa” narratives we sort of quietly presume to be going on across the continent all the time, and nothing we can think anything new about.

In that last paragraph, I went pretty deep into a very particular kind of “we,” so let me back up and clarify what I mean. Part of the problem is that there is too much garbage in our brains. So when I teach African literature, for example, I always begin the class by making a list of all the words that “we” might use to describe Africa (“dark continent,” “refugee,” “civil war,” “tribal,” and “AIDS” are common ones), but I do this only after instructing the class that what I mean is, of course, not what you or I think about Africa, but what “people” think about Africa, what the “media” thinks about the dark continent, what those less knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, and sensitive that us might think, in their sad and tragic ignorance. This gives us permission to think more clearly about how stupid we are, deep down, where we don’t like to go. I could also just give them Binyavaga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa,” and I usually do, but it works better if it comes organically from us first, because it allows us, as a class, to access what we might call that “collectively conscious unconsciousness” about Africa that we all share, albeit in differing ways. We might be more or less aware of it, and we might have differing levels of actual knowledge about Africa, but we are all, still, bombarded and saturated with so much “Africa nonformation” that we can’t help but let it infect our thinking. None of us are pure, here. And the first step towards knowing better has to be taking account of all the ignorance you already “know,” often without consciously knowing you know it. These are our “unknown knowns,” to use Zizek’s Lacanian Rumsfeldianism. And we only defuse them by bracketing them off from ourselves, naming them, and thinking carefully about them.

So what really is happening in Côte d’Ivoire? To answer that question, the historian in me wants to take the long view and frame what is happening now through the lens of Côte d’Ivoire in the sixties, the nineties, and the civil war that blew up in 2002 (starting here, if you want to do that). In other words, to place what is happening now in the continuous history out of which it emerges, as a way of differentiating the evolving situation there from the surface images of it that we are otherwise limited to. After all, most of the pictures, stories, and narratives that are available to us are accurate, more or less: there really is a humanitarian catastrophe, a disputed election, a refugee crisis, and the specter of full-blown civil war. But the question of why is impossible even to address if we don’t go beneath the apparent self-sufficiency of the images, the answers that seem to close down discussion rather than open it up. Just as Egypt’s protests didn’t come out of a vacuum, the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has deep roots.

But shallow historiography is not the only problem. Take a look at this video from CCTV, which reports on how, on March 3rd, an all-women protest was set upon by government tanks and soldiers, killing seven women. I’ve cued that video to a particularly poignant section from about 0:40 to 0:53 where you can see a crowd of Ivoirians desperately trying to get a visual message through the camera person to whoever is watching. CCTV does not interview any of them; we do not hear their voices or stories. Instead, we get this bizarre game of “international affairs” charades: first, the crowd is seen gesturing wildly at an enormous pile of sandals on the ground, then they’re lifting and brandishing piles of clothing (all the while shouting illegibly), and then you see someone enter the frame holding a sign with the caption: “GBAGBO — LE PHARAON DE TEMPS MODERNES” (Gbagbo – the pharaoh of modern times).

What are the sandals for? What are these clothes to represent? Apparently the sandals are the footwear which were discarded when the women started running from the soldiers, though we don‘t get that explanation in the story itself; the amount indicates, therefore, the number of women who fled. Perhaps the clothing represents something similar? I’m not sure. But the sign is the key, as is the fact that it‘s only by happenstance that it happened to wander across the camera-man‘s gaze. Those Ivoirians were trying to play the internationally understood game of spectacle politics, trying to link what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire to what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa. They were trying to make us see the murder of peacefully protesting civilians by army weapons not simply as an atrocity, but as a particular kind of atrocity, the kind which requires intervention, attention, action. They were trying to take what is happening out of the narrative frame of “another African civil war” and place it in the frame of “dictator clinging to power by violently suppressing popular protest.” Like Ben Ali. Like Mubarak.

In other words, the problem is more than just that we “know” too much garbage about “Africa.” The problem is that we will find it difficult to see what is happening in a place like Côte d’Ivoire as part of the same macro-narrative that we have — slowly — learned to apply to the Middle East and North Africa, precisely to the extent that we place the latter phenomenon in a specifically limiting geographical context. If applying the frame of “Africa” to Côte d’Ivoire gets in the way, in other words, so can unconsciously limiting the geographical scope of “Protests in the Middle East” to the Middle East. Is what is happening in Gabon (here and here) not similar? Or Senegal? Angola? Gambia? Cameroon? And, of course, if what you want is protests for democracy in an oil producing region, let me introduce you to the Niger Delta.

Dibussi Tande has some thoughts on why the Revolution 2.0 hasn’t spread to sub-Saharan Africa, so far. Though it went almost totally unreported in the West, there were demonstrations in Cameroon on Feb 23rd demanding that Paul Biya step down — very much hoping to pull an Egypt on him — and the fact that they were easily quashed has to be dealt with. And, after all, I don’t want to suggest that we are seeing the same thing working itself out in sub-Saharan Africa. Because there is no same thing: while the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, etc, are all related and connected — and have increasingly converged on a singular language of protest — the political dynamics in each site have proven to be very different. Cameroon or Côte d’Ivoire are certainly no exception to that rule.

But this thing we are watching still might spread beyond North Africa; there’s a reason why so many sub-Saharan African governments are censoring the news out of Egypt. A lot of people outside of the Middle East are trying to figure out a local means of getting to a similar endpoint, and if that guy holding the “GBAGBO — LE PHARAON DE TEMPS MODERNES” was able to see a connection, then it’s there. But to take that into account, we need to loosen our grip on entire categorical sub-Saharan Africa vs. North Africa distinction. As Callie Maidhof pointed out:

…terms such as “Africa” and “the Middle East” function not only on the basis of geography or actual political ties, but as stand-ins for racial signifiers. Despite a shared history of European colonialism in its different manifestations, Africa and the Middle East nonetheless bear extremely different histories of representation or historical imaginaries within the European continent…these deeply rooted histories have frankly hindered our understanding of the recent revolutions—especially that of Libya—and even more so of their effect on politics on the African continent.

It’s not just race, though; it is easier, in some ways, to realize that Libya is part of “Africa” than to accept that Côte d’Ivoire could be part of “Middle-East-North-Africa.” The myth of continents tells us that the former is true, while that the latter is, by that standard, obviously false. And another part of what makes Middle East-North Africa seem to be distinct from either Europe or Africa is the fact that it was — as part of the Ottoman empire — historically distinct both  from the “Dark Continent” Africa that was imagined through European penetration and interpellation and also from the “Europe” which imagined by reference to its Ottoman and Orientalist other.

But race does shed some light on one of the most tellingly overlooked facts about what’s happening in Côte d’Ivoire, the fact that the entire conflict — for the past decade — has hinged on the question of whether Muslim immigrants to Côte d’Ivoire are really Ivoirian, which is to say, whether Muslims from the North African edge of West Africa are really African enough to be part of Côte d’Ivoire. You see where I’m going with this?

I don’t want to simplify it more than I can avoid, but putting it as simply as possible is a way of noting the this fact which has programmatically figured in almost no mainstream Western accounts of the violence: since the 1990’s, but with a major spike in the 2000’s, Ivoirian nativists have been working to place “Northern,” “Muslim,” and “Burkinabé” people outside the definition of Côte d’Ivoire’s political community, a way of denying full citizenship to those who lack full “Ivorité,” as it first began being called in the 90‘s. Moreover, these three categories are not quite coextensive, but the crisis quite clearly began ten years ago, and continues now, when former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara  — who is Muslim, Northern, and Burkinabé — was then and is now being prevented from assuming the presidency on the basis of a very strategically limited notion of who is truly Ivoirian.

This is, in other words, about the political power structure working to limit who gets to politically represent and be represented in this “African” nation, precisely by drawing a line to separating “North Africa” from “West Africa,” in politically interested ways, to maintain political control for the real Ivoirians in the south. Without denying that there might be other bad guys in this story, the fact remains — virtually unspoken — that ten years ago, Ouattara’s ethnic origin as Burkinabé — his parents were from Burkina Faso — was used by politicians from the predominantly Christian southern part of the country to disqualify him from running for the presidency; a political campaign of “Ivorité” worked to distinguish between “indigenous Ivorians” and “Ivorians of immigrant ancestry,” as a thoroughly programmatic effort to dis-enfranchise the (largely Muslim) north by lumping them all together with the (many) immigrants in the north who originated Burkina Faso. The current violence started with a disturbingly analogous move: after Ouattara was declared to have won the presidential election — by the UN, ECOWAS, the AU, and all international observers — the Gbagbo controlled Constitutional Council threw out 660,000 votes from the north and gave the election to Gbagbo.

It’s all very complicated. But for now, my point is simply to note that these geographical categories are not only part of the problem in Côte d’Ivoire itself. In this case, they are part of the reason why we find it so difficult to even talk coherently about the problem. This is a point which Mahmood Mamdani has made at great length (and shorter length) with respect to Darfur and “Africans” and “Arabs” there, but the general point he’s been making for years, about the political production of ethnicity, is just as necessary here. Take this BBC account of the violence, for example, which tells the story as the emergence of underlying ethnic, religious and economic divisions after an influx of foreign immigrants (drawn by Côte d’Ivoire’s economic success) stirred up resentment in the south:

…under the surface, the country has long been deeply divided along ethnic, religious and economic lines. Its thriving cocoa industry meant living standards in Ivory Coast were far higher than its neighbours, so people from some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, moved there to earn their living. Some of these people shared ethnic ties to those living in northern Ivory Coast and, like them, were mostly Muslim. Some southerners, egged on by populist politicians, started to resent the influx and demanded action to protect the country’s “Ivoirite (Ivorian-ness)”. They portrayed northerners as not being real Ivorians.

None of this is untrue, exactly, but one important fact is missing: that the meaning of ethnicity is not given, natural, but made, by conscious political actors, for conscious political gain. Nothing in the BBC story will tell you how this uptick in nativism really began; instead, you are allowed to assume that it is natural to hate “others,” that distrusting immigrants is just something that people do (or, if not everyone, at least “tribal” Africans). They might have been “egged on by populist politicians,” but the real problem is populism itself. And no specifics are given about what the particular divisions were that were targeted, certainly not in ways that might lead us to wonder how a global war on Muslims (and the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant nativism in the US and EU) might provide cover for disenfranchising Muslims/immigrants in a place like Côte d’Ivoire. But while I’m wondering about that, I’m much more certain that precisely to the extent that we take the line separating North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa seriously — naturalizing it as a real thing, in the way that “long been deeply divided” does — the more difficult it becomes to see how that line is being manipulated and used for political gain, and by who. Pre-existing ethnic divisions do not, in any simple way, cause the political violence: political actors are always using (by transforming) ethnicity through violence to acquire and keep wealth and power. And without that insight, we will understand very little about the temporality of this conflict, neither its history nor its future.